The Growth Company, Inc. Delivers Fair Warning to Employers About the Need for Social Media Policies

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With access to a variety of social media outlets, companies need to be aware of what can easily become public information. By applying social media policies, companies can stifle these occurrences.

We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea

When a restaurant employee created a My Space user group so that current and former employees could complain about his company, he invited employees to "vent about any BS we deal with.... Let the sh*t talking begin.” As reported in citimedialaw.org’s July 13, 2009 document “Hillstone Restaurant Group v. Pietrylo,” the company fired Pietrylo, the My Space instigator. A federal lawsuit followed, claiming violations of the employees’ freedom of speech and privacy rights.

“The jury found in favor of the defendants on Pietrylo's and Marino's claims for invasion of privacy, finding that the plaintiffs had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the MySpace group. “    

Many people might remember the social media incident that brought down a Domino’s store. A Domino’s Pizza employee posted an online video of her co-worker performing some horrendously crude gestures while preparing food for delivery. Abcnews.go.com published “Star of Domino’s Pizza Gross-Out Video is Sorry” on May 4, 2009, giving a specific details on the incident. In this publication, the star of the YouTube video is quoted as saying, "this is Michael's special Italian sandwich" while his co-worker videoed him putting cheese up his nose and then placing the cheese plus nasal mucus on a sandwich.

Abcnews.go.com goes on to report, “Through Twitter, blogs and YouTube, the videos had been viewed by millions of people, highlighting the power of social media to tarnish a 50-year-old brand virtually overnight.” As discussions spread throughout Twitter, customers reacted and Domino’s sales plummeted. According to nytimes.com’s April 15, 2009 publication, “Video Prank at Domino’s Taints Brand,” the research firm YouGov that hosts daily online surveys of 1000 consumers reported that consumer perception of Domino’s dropped from positive to negative in just a few days.
As Domino’s learned, social media has the reach and speed to turn employee venting into a public relations nightmare. “We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea” said Domino’s spokesperson, Tim McIntyre, quoted in the nytimes.com publication. The perpetual mushroom effect of Twitter tweets reminding potential customers “when you think about Domino’s, think nose snot” forced Domino’s to close the store.

Clearly companies need to get a handle on their employees’ use of social media including Facebook, My Space, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube before they face their own domino effect.

How?

Dr. Lynne Curry, owner of The Growth Company, Inc. and management consultant for over thirty years states that employers need to craft a clear-cut social media that doesn’t violate their employees’ freedom of speech or privacy rights. Employees have the right to blow off steam on their own time. Employers additionally have to remember that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protects both union and non-union employees’ right to “engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

Dr. Curry also explains that an effective, enforceable social media policy needs to clearly state that the policy doesn’t intend to prevent employees from engaging in their lawful free speech or privacy rights but instead intends to protect the company and its reputation.

The policy should further remind employees to exercise common sense by not disclosing confidential or proprietary information or disparaging the company’s products, services, executive leadership, employees or strategies as the negative impact could affect all employees’ livelihood, according to Dr. Curry.

In recent decisions, the NLRB has upheld the employer’s right to maintain reasonable workplace policies to maintain order in the workplace and avoid liability from employee actions such as explicit sexual references or discriminatory comments that affect the public.

Could one or more employees publicly vent about supervisors or take down a business with a funny-but-nasty My Space site or YouTube video? Absolutely. Can employees do this without consequences? That depends on a company’s policy and its enforceability.

© Lynne Curry, July 2012, http://www.thegrowthcompany.com

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